Can Johnson & Johnson Navigate Its Public Relations Tightrope?

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) has announced it will be removing formaldehyde and numerous other potential harmful chemicals from its products — which include a range of personal care products from baby shampoo to acne cream to antiwrinkle lotion — by the end of 2015. It will be the first major consumer products company to make such a commitment.

Already the company has promised to remove certain chemicals from its baby products by 2013, but now Johnson & Johnson will extend those changes to its adult products, including well-known drugstore brands like Neutrogena, Aveeno, and Clean & Clear.

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“There’s a very lively public discussion going on about the safety of ingredients in personal care products,” Susan Nettesheim, vice president for product stewardship and toxicology for the company’s consumer health brands, told The New York Times. “It was really important that we had a voice in that.”

Environmental and consumer groups have been pressuring Johnson & Johnson and other consumer product manufacturers to remove questionable ingredients from their products for years. “We’ve never really seen a major personal care product company take the kind of move that they’re taking with this,” Kenneth A. Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, told the publication. “Not really even anything in the ballpark.” The Environmental Working Group is one of the organizations that has been negotiating with company officials to change their practices.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition that includes the Environmental Working Group, analyzed the contents of dozens of products for children in 2009 and discovered that many of them contained two concerning substances: formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane. But, because neither is technically an ingredient, consumers will not find either chemical listed on the back of their shampoos or lotions. Formaldehyde has been identified by the federal government as a carcinogen, while 1,4 dioxane has been linked to cancer as well. It is created during a process commonly used to make other ingredients feel gentler on the skin.

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Director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Lisa Archer, told the Times that her group is also working to convince other cosmetic and consumer goods companies to follow Johnson & Johnson’s example, including Estée Lauder Companies (NYSE:EL), Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), Avon (NYSE:AVP), and L’Oreal. Already, Procter & Gamble has reformulated its Herbal Essence shampoos to limit the amount of 1,4-dioxane to only trace amounts.

On the part of Johnson & Johnson, the change will be a major undertaking, as it will require extensive spending on research and development to discover a suitable alternative to the dangerous ingredients, according to Nettesheim. Furthermore, the company’s decision to remove harmful chemicals from its products requires the company to navigate a public relations tightrope. On one hand, Johnson & Johnson has portrayed itself as willing to make extensive changes, but it must also reassure consumers that its existing products are safe. The success of this campaign is all the more important because the company has been forced to issue serious recalls, and it has experienced quality lapses in recent years. A new website described the changes to consumers as part of its process of “moving beyond safety.”

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